Cheaper chickens: a slap in the face of food snobs
The outraged reaction to Tesco’s decision to sell chickens for £1.99 is stuffed with an unpalatable mix of snobbery and fearmongering.
‘Tesco hits a new low with arrival of the £1.99 chicken’, screamed a headline in the Independent. When the paper said ‘low’, it wasn’t referring to the price. ‘While Sainsbury’s has committed to massive improvements in animal welfare, Tesco is showing its ethical credentials with this race to the bottom’, declared the research director of Compassion in World Farming. The fact that a supermarket could be widely criticised for cutting its prices reveals much about the topsy-turvy, screwed-up debate about food today.
Tesco’s decision to slash the price of its Grade A broiler chickens, rather than making the more ethically acceptable free-range variety cheaper, comes almost immediately after celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched a television crusade against broiler production. In Hugh’s Chicken Run on Channel 4, Fearnley-Whittingstall produced two crops of chicken side-by-side: one using typical intensive methods; the other using free-range principles. The intensively produced chickens, bred to grow quickly, had less space to move in, were kept awake almost constantly and suffered from leg problems. As a result, some of them – though not many – had to be destroyed. The free-range chickens, bred to grow more slowly, were able to roam around outdoors. However, some of the free-range birds also had to be destroyed because they acquired an infection – something which the broiler birds stuck indoors were never exposed to.
In his show, Fearnley-Whittingstall frequently argued that in selling such cheap chicken (it was ‘two-for-a-fiver’, then – now you can get three for six quid), Tesco was complicit in the lowering of welfare standards for chickens. So it must have felt like a personal slap in the face for the posh River Cottage chef when Tesco launched its latest deal to make the birds even cheaper. ‘I’m very surprised [at Tesco] because everybody is selling out of free-range chicken’, said Fearnley-Whittingstall. ‘To launch a £1.99 chicken is in direct contradiction to a statement [Tesco chief executive] Sir Terry Leahy made last summer, when he said he didn’t want to get into a food price war on chicken.’
Tesco, however, is unrepentant. It has promoted the latest price cut as a helping hand to families suffering from ‘mortgage worries, energy price rises and inflation’. Yet it seems that for a big company to ignore the ethical pestering of a celebrity do-gooder and provide its customers with what they want - good, affordable food - is beyond the pale these days. Numerous commentators and reporters are attacking Tesco for acting ‘unethically’. Ironically, Hugh’s Chicken Run seems to have communicated at least one clear message to viewers: you can get two chickens for a fiver at Tesco! Sales of bog-standard chicken rose by seven per cent after the series ended. This suggests that while the ethical hectoring of food snobs like Fearnley-Whittingstall might get liberal and green-leaning commentators hot under the collar, it doesn’t have much of an impact on the British public. When you’ve got a family to feed, having access to a good dinner for relatively little money is a good thing – and if we really gave a damn about chickens and their ‘feelings’, well, we wouldn’t eat them in the first place.
Of course, Tesco is not providing cheap chicken for the love of it. Rather, it thinks that a high-profile promotion such as this will get more shoppers into its stores and increase its turnover. Sainsbury’s, on the other hand, has always pitched itself as being a bit classier, middle-class and right-on than Tesco, and so it uses a bit of PR about its ethical values to get a different kind of shopper into its stores. Both companies are interested primarily in making money. But as long as that means producing and selling food cheaply and efficiently, surely that is good news for the rest of us?
Underpinning the reaction to Tesco’s price cut is a feeling that food is becoming too cheap - that we no longer know the true value of what we eat. If only we would pay more for our meals, then they would be tastier, healthier and more ‘ethical’; they would be more morally filling, apparently. It is certainly true that you get what you pay for, and it’s nice to have the option of a ‘posh’ chicken every now and then. But it is far from clear why returning to the days when food absorbed 30 per cent or more of the average household budget is anything to celebrate. Such a reversal would inevitably mean sacrificing other things that we enjoy doing, and it would put some foods out of the reach of poorer families altogether. The food snobs’ explicit attempt to prevent food from being made cheaper could have a detrimental impact on people’s living standards.
What really underpins the outraged reaction to ever-cheaper chicken is snobbery: a sense that the dumb masses don’t know what is good for them. Some anti-Tesco (or perhaps Tescophobic) commentators write about the ‘zombies’ who work and shop there, and claim – without a smidgen of evidence – that cheap meat is poisoning poor people. Better if they didn’t have meat at all, I suppose, and lived instead on tinned beans and potatoes. Indeed, the chicken snobbery is liberally basted with a mixture of fears: that the food we eat will not only poison our bodies (through making us obese and stuffing us with additives), but will also poison our minds (through making us think that animal cruelty is okay) and poison our communities (through driving the local butcher and baker out of business).
This sense of superiority over the thick, cheap meat-scoffing masses permeates today’s food campaigning: it’s there in the blame-the-parents scaremongering of Jamie Oliver’s TV and political crusade to improve school dinners and police the lunchbox, and in the food fears spread by the likes of Sun columnist Jane Moore and the anti-supermarket rant Tescopoly by Andrew Simms. While most of the British public buys and enjoys cheap and nutritious food, and then gets on with the more interesting parts of their lives, sections of the commentariart bizarrely work themselves into a frenzy about dangerous chickens or turkey twizzlers.
Our food is not killing us. In fact, never in the history of Britain has such a wide variety of safe and healthy food been affordable to so many. When the well-to-do start lecturing companies and customers about their selling and eating habits, it’s not just the chickens that need a good roasting.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.